About two weeks ago, Piotr Naskrecki, whose blog The Smaller Majority I routinely follow (and you should too), posted a nice story about his encounter with the world’s biggest and heaviest living spider, the South American Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), while surveying a rainforest in Guyana. The blogpost gained respectable attention from everyone who appreciates a good natural history piece, but only when picked up by a “viral-content-spreading” website it started getting the full public attention it deserved. Or did it? To be honest, I do not know which website was first in line to spread the story of a “puppy-sized spider with foot-long legs” but it wasn’t long before the internet and the media snatched the story and made it spread like wildfire. The result was interesting but also horrifying to watch – almost within a day the internet was flooded with various reports and interpretations of the original blogpost, some of which were poorly written and included embarrassing inaccuracies. The story quickly climbed up in popularity and a few days ago was ranked #14 in the fastest spreading online news, along with other “popular” news stories such as the Ebola outbreak. Needless to say, the majority of those reports shamelessly used Piotr’s photographs on their own websites without permission.
A small insert about content turning viral: One simply cannot predict what will become viral on the internet. I have tried to do this myself and failed, when photographs that I thought were decent received no attention at all, whereas crappy photos that I took out of laziness just before I went to bed were instantly favored and shared. Want an example? Here are two:
When comments started pouring in on the tarantula article, the usual mix of positive (“amazing animal!”) and negative (“kill it with fire!”) responses could be seen. But among those there was a strong stream of comments calling for justice, as it was revealed that the spider was eventually collected for research and deposited in a museum collection. At first I did not know where this information originated from, after all the original post by Piotr did not include any statement about collecting the spider. Later that day I found it, in the closing paragraph of this report.
Spiders are sweet, I agree. This bashing response, however, points to an alarming problem. First, I do believe these comments truly come from people who care about nature and the environment. So why am I writing this? Because I think it is unclear to the public what scientists actually do, and in the case of biologists, why they collect data and specimens in the field and what happens to such specimens further along the road. The funny thing is that there are many blogs out there, run by scientists, trying to take a public outreach approach by explaining the routine and difficulties scientists face in their daily work. Among these blogs there are quite a few that discuss the topic of collecting insect specimens for research, like Biodiversity in Focus and Beetles in the Bush to name a few. However, I do not see people submitting the same type of preaching comments (promoting the insects’ rights to live) in these blogs. The reason is quite depressing: the general public, the same people who were exposed to the Goliath Birdeater story via the various viral news websites, do not read blogs about scientific research, even though these blogs are there for the public in the first place. Here is where Piotr’s blog is doing so well; it brings easily digestible information about the wonders of earth, in a language that can be understood by any person, without excessive technical details or jargon. The same can be said about his books. In addition, everyone loves a good photograph, and Piotr’s photos are nothing short of stunning.
So why bash a scientist for killing a single spider for research?
Piotr gave an excellent response to this issue in his subsequent post (now integrated within the original Goliath Birdeater post), I really could not have said it better myself, so make sure you head over to his blog to read it. I will just add a few things. For start, I do not think the accusing commenters are aware of Piotr’s significant contributions to nature conservation. Unfortunately, the finger is fast on the
trigger keyboard, and it has become extremely easy to criticize any person one does not agree with on the internet. But the problem is much worse than trolling. Most people do not realize that the only reason they know what they know about nature, whether it is related to animals, plants or their environment, is because some scientist spent a lot of time in remote areas collecting this information, and then took the liberty of publishing it for the greater good. Without scientific knowledge no one would even know the spider in Piotr’s post is a Goliath Birdeater, it would just pass as a legendary giant arachnid. The only way to properly identify a species or describe a new one is to collect it and compare it to related species that were… also collected and killed previously. You see, from a scientific point of view, this work will never end. There are so many species out there, with many of them undescribed or unknown. Be thankful and considerate towards those who sacrifice so much of themselves not only to deliver these majestic creatures all the way to your computer screen at the comfort of your home or office, but also invest enormously towards protection of their natural habitat from destruction.